A Mounting Mob in Manchuria

As the administrative hub of the Chinese-Eastern Railway, Harbin offered the promise of financial prosperity to a new wave of residents and served as a haven for refugees escaping Russia, 1913. http://www.transsib.ru/Eng Author: Sergey Boltenko (scan)

She had but one goal before her — America, the land of her husband and her all. Begging her way, from town to town, obtaining passage from one point to another, awaiting help at other towns en route, she thus lost three years in coming from Russian Poland to Siberia and finally to Yokohama. … her [children’s] … little, pale emaciated faces tell a story of inhuman suffering …

This excerpt of an article that appeared Oct. 5, 1917, in the English-language newspaper The Japan Advertiser documented the voyage of Vera Kirloff and her four children. But it could well have mirrored the experience of Mariasia Naginsky and her five daughters, as they were traveling along the same route during approximately the same time frame in 1917 — as Czar Nicholas II abdicated in March, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky in October and civil war ensued.

After successfully traversing Russia, including Siberia, the Naginskys likely arrived in Harbin during late 1916 or early 1917. Located in Manchuria — along Russia’s southeastern border — the city is a stop on the Chinese Eastern Railway, an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway that provided a shorter route to Vladivostok, Russia’s gateway to the Pacific. Harbin served as the administrative hub of this railway, which was constructed by the Russians on land leased from China.

With the political and economic situation in Russia deteriorating, growing numbers of emigrants crowded Harbin and other Far East locations along the path to America. According to the article in The Japan Advertiser:

More than 600 emigrants are now gathered in Harbin with additional numbers arriving on every trans-Siberian train. They are awaiting an opportunity to come to Yokohama en route to America, but are being detained there by the Russian consulate, in compliance with a telegraphic request of the [Yokohama Emigrant Aid Society] not to allow any more emigrants to come through until those that are here have been enabled to proceed.

As the environment was changing so rapidly in Russia in 1917, it’s hard to know exactly what Mariasia and her daughters experienced during their time in Harbin. With a thriving Jewish community of close to 10,000, it seems safe to assume that its members provided organized assistance to the growing number of refugees arriving there. While I have found no primary sources confirming this local involvement — the operation of a shelter, for instance — there are online resources indicating that the community offered support to Russian victims of pogroms and the war by organizing distribution of food, establishing dormitories, delivering medical care, and more.

Even with support from Harbin’s large Jewish community, the scope of the crisis simply may have been too overwhelming. A fact-finding mission by a representative of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society found widespread suffering in the region. According to an article published by the New York Times on Jan. 16, 1918 — probably within a year of the Naginskys’ stay — a cable message sent by HIAS’s Samuel Mason, who was dispatched in November 1917 to address the growing crisis in the Far East, told a story of sickness and suffering: “Conditions appalling,” he wrote. “Sickness, want, heavy demands. …” The article also indicated that the number of emigrants held in Harbin already had grown to 11,000. A HIAS report issued later summarized Mason’s findings: “At Harbin there are thousands of refugees sleeping in court yards, sheds and even among the Chinese. Jews are always to be found among others sleeping at the railroad stations.”

Somehow able to overcome these difficult circumstances — as well as withstand the weather in Harbin, where winter temperatures average 2 degrees Fahrenheit — Mariasia and her daughters continued on to Vladivostok. It would become their launching point for a trans-Pacific crossing — one that would almost end before it began.

2 comments on “A Mounting Mob in Manchuria

  1. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    Excellent research job! I wonder where she and the family stayed. They must have found shelter somewhere. I also wonder if she worked while waiting for passage. Thanks so muchj

  2. nsgreer says:

    I can’t imagine they didn’t find some type of a shelter. But the situation sounded pretty dire. I need to go back to YIVO and see if I missed information on Harbin. It’s possible I didn’t realize the role it played at the time I was doing research there.

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